Long ago in the misty depths of time, I think during my teens, I read a couple of strange science fiction novels named Memory Seed and Glass. They were probably my first experience of ecological sf, and definitely my first experience of Stephen Palmer, as they were his first published books. Quarter of a century or so later, we became acquainted through the anthology project at SFFWorld.com when he contributed a piece to Ecotones, which was my first time wrangling a cadre of short fiction authors, something I now do several times a year as a magazine editor.
In between those times and since, Stephen has independently published a raft of other novels, and his latest, the Conjuror Girl alternate-history trilogy, are now available! I’m delighted to give Stephen a platform to discuss an aspect of his work for the penultimate leg of his book-launch blog-tour – so, without further ado:
Stephen Palmer talks… Character Names
I like inventing character names. Names allow an author to summarise their characters, and I for one can’t resist doing that.
In some of my novels the characters’ names acquire particular significance. In Tommy Catkins for instance all the surnames are Dutch – or so it seems. The novel, though written by me, was narrated by Tommy himself, so the reader sees events only through his eyes. That all the surnames of the people he meets are Dutch therefore gives the reader a special insight into Tommy’s mental condition. Indeed, Tommy’s own name cannot be his real one: Tommy Atkins was parlance for a WW1 soldier. In Hairy London I used names evocative of atmospheres, but also those which for purely “musical” reasons – the sound and rhythm of the syllables – seemed good or appropriate to me. Thus, Oxphordia Drome, Benry Hallowee-Tong and so on. Here I quite often changed one letter of a name: Henry to Benry, Jeremy to Sheremy etc. I imbued some names with Rabelaisian flights of fancy: Kornukope Wetherbee, for instance, whose name I perverted from the word cornucopia. Thitherto Frenulum was a particular favourite.
In my new Conjuror Girl trilogy I had the opportunity to invent a few vaguely Dickens-esque names for some of the more grotesque characters. Considering a small-minded chemist lacking the talent to become a Reifer – those men with the gift of making real the contents of their imaginations – I decided to call him Mr Learned. Learned is a real English language surname, used in America. I liked the irony of Mr Learned being anything but, except in his own narrow field of speciality. Another was Piebalt Bleakmonger. I think this name in particular was one I created thinking of Charles Dickens. His first name came from the word piebald, often applied to horses, and meaning composed of incongruous colours placed together, while his surname was a way of evoking his morose character.
Through the first two novels mention is made of one Dr Noct, whom the reader encounters with Monica and her best friend Lily in the finale. Noct of course comes from the Latin, evoking night; the perfect name for a man of black deeds. Also in that final volume the reader meets the Hatherley family. When considering this surname I realised I wanted something that rhymed and sounded musical alongside Monica’s forename – this would be a book title, after all. Thinking of the outstanding musician Charlotte Hatherley, I realised her surname would be perfect. Another character of the third book is Miss Widdershins. Here, the surname evokes something of the lady’s unusual, even eccentric character; widdershins is an old English word meaning “in the opposite direction,” from the Old German weddersinnes.
I also wanted to use rare surnames, especially those which stood out for some reason. A quick search online led me to discover that Woodbead is an exceedingly rare surname. It was perfect for a street girl called Maude. Meanwhile, Edward Hafren’s surname is the Welsh spelling of the River Severn, inside which the novel’s setting, Shrewsbury, existed when it was first founded.
Great fun, names! I love them. And there will be more…
You can find details of the trilogy and of Stephen’s blog-tour from the links on his website – and he’s also been interviewed right here both in brief and at length, should you wish to learn a little more about him.